Is it racial vilification to question a personâ€™s claim to be an indigenous Australian?
Of course, it depends how you say it. Or question it.
A number of Aboriginal leaders are suing under racial vilification laws, arguing that the Herald Sun’s popular columnist Andrew Bolt has vilified them.
While one isn’t meant to pre-judge cases before the Federal Court, we’re sure the judge, our old friend Mordy Bromberg, a former St Kilda player and long-time ALP member who was in the latte left-leaning ALP “Independents” faction (popular with barristers and baristas alike) before bombing out in a preselection for the safe federal Melbourne western suburbs seat of Gorton, won’t mind. It’s clearly a crock, a case brought for all the wrong reasons.
There’s not a racially vilifying word in any of Bolt’s columns. We know. We looked. Here. Here. And here.
Racial and ethnic identity is complex. Many of us donâ€™t think about it all. To the best of my limited knowledge, my ancestors come from Wales and Scotland via England. But I donâ€™t really know, having failed to sign up to ancestry.com [affiliate link here], ignored family members’ occasional interest in such things and while once gladly receiving votes from some in my elective office days who assumed I was Greek. Yassou.
Some people â€“ and itâ€™s a bit hard for most of us to relate to â€“ latch on to a part of their family tree (be it Hungarian or Mongolian) and identify with it. Others yet are brought up immersed in a culture and sometimes a language from far away and find it a tremendous blessing. It binds families together and helps new arrivals find a solid footing here.
SHUNNING THE PAST
Some like Senator Eric Abetz – who yesterday ripped into Labor MP Michael Danby for not being sufficiently pro-Israel – have been unfairly criticised by association because they had a senior Nazi war-criminal as an great-uncle, in his case a charmer called Otto who was a Brigade-Leader in the SS before serving twenty years in jail for war-crimes.
Perhaps Herr Eric was over-compensating. Who knows.
So some shun their past, others ignore it or don’t learn about ti and others immerse themselves in a racial or national identity that could belong to another time or a far-away place.
Good luck to them. Whatever floats their boat. Indeed, if it helps them makes sense of the world that way and gives them a sense of place then we’re all for it.
QUESTIONING PUBLIC FIGURES IS FAIR ENOUGH
But when some identify with the Aboriginal people, a group that has been the victim of sometimes the most searing and vicious and violent oppression ever seen in Australia, then I think itâ€™s perfectly legitimate for there to be a healthy debate about whether just anyone can consider themselves to be an Aborigine when their family tree doesnâ€™t show much of a connection.
When young author Helen Darville operated under a Ukrainian pseudonym Helen Demidenko, she was presumed by many to have a racial motivation; certainly no-one was criticised for being racist for challenging her ethnic credentials. Indeed she became a national punching-bag for a time because of a debate over her ethnic credentials. No-one suggested that the debate over her bona fides was motivated by racism, even when it had lynch-mob intensity.
Thatâ€™s not to say we should be obsessing about racial background down to the level of racial fractions either, in the way past generations did. Indeed, Andrew Bolt didn’t do that, he merely questioned their credentials to claim Aboriginal community leadership.
Thereâ€™s a balance. It’s a legitimate and certainly not a racist or racially vilifying discussion to question the ethnic credentials of public figures who make that a central part of their identity.
ESKIMO PIES ALL ROUND
If I were to claim to be Eskimo, and formed my claim on the basis of a deep-and-abiding love of Eskimo Pies, I would be rightly mocked. And it wouldn’t be racist to call me on it.
So when Andrew Bolt, a lightning-rod for Lefty criticism, (pun intended) made the point that some – who didnâ€™t appear to be likely victims of racism or exclusion because of their Aboriginality – were positioning themselves as the most prominent spokespeople of Aborigines, and enjoying the benefits the community has allocated to them, he made a typically reasoned and very well-researched argument questioning their claim. Even his foes and critics concede that Bolt is extremely thorough and diligent.
BE THE CHANGE YOU SEEK COMRADES
Looking at those columns, it’s clear. Thereâ€™s not a word of racial vilification or disparagement on racial grounds. And not a word of racism. Bolt was merely pointing out the obvious that a few prominent Aborigines who seemed particularly keen to promote racial difference appeared not really have much of an Aboriginal background.
When there are – as there should be – affirmative action measures to address indigenous exclusion and inequality of opportunity, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether people who might not have been the victim of that exclusion might be muscling in on the quotas or benefits that ought really go to someone else. It’s not racist to ensure that programmes for Aborginal people actually go to Aboriginal people.
It’s not racist to raise that issue. Some – like those on Fairfax radio (increasingly the home of the bigot and the loon especially in Sydney where membership of One Nation helps you get on the roster) – might incite racial hatred every time they mention the First Australians but it is possible to discuss those issues, genuinely important public policy issues, without engaging in racial vilification, as any reasonable person would define it.
Far from racism, Bolt urged:
In fact, letâ€™s go beyond racial pride. Beyond black and white. Letâ€™s be proud only of being human beings set on this land together, determined to find what unites us and not to invent such racist and trivial excuses to divide.
And thatâ€™s why the litigation accusing Bolt of racial vilification on such a thin basis is such a big worry.
We hope that our chum, Justice Mordy Bromberg can see what many can which is that this case has been brought to falsely claim Andrew Bolt is a racist and to intimidate him into silence on this delicate subject. (Delicate for them)
Arguing about the ancestry of public figures, and their motivation for claiming an ancestry others might not think they really have, is not racial vilification when in the clearly non-vilifying political context of Boltâ€™s columns.
WE FEEL FOOLISH
We thought racial vilification laws very important at their time they were passed. Too many searing anti-Semite Larouchite newsletters have been distributed in Caulfield, too many people of non-English speaking background involved in party politics automatically presumed by The Age and ABC to be corrupt branch-stackers, too many synagogues vandalised, too many Jewish men with yamulkes attacked, too many Muslim women in traditional garb screamed at (and worse) and too many Aborigines beaten up – we thought – for vicious statements of racism not to be made illegal.
There were many who thought these laws were prone to being abused.Â Weâ€™re sad to say it seems they were right.
The class-action plaintiffs claiming theyâ€™ve been racially vilified have not sued in defamation, because truth is a defence to defamation.
We havenâ€™t yet read their statement of claim or heard their lawyerâ€™s high-priced arguments.
But we see once again yet another example of those whoâ€™d be the first to tut-tut about conservative governments limiting free-speech rights failing to apply those stated principles consistently.
We don’t need to see the fine print to know this is scandalous, vexatious and outrageous litigation.
It trivialises not only racial vilification but will no doubt have the effect of making the fight against genuine racism seem petty and small and vindictive.
A TENUOUS CLAIM TO VICTIMHOOD
I donâ€™t know what it is to be the victim of racial vilification or racism. But I hate it. My old man was a politician and at school as a group they tended not to be universally popular so I can relate to an exotic version of prejudice. While my modest good looks, right hook and charm were sufficient to combat occasional outbreaks, I didnâ€™t like it much and I don’t doubt racism must hurt infinitely more.
History teaches us that racism is a cancer that we must constantly fight and smite in order to maintain a civil and decent and unified society. We should take it very seriously and I’m glad we do. We have seen the race-riots, the genocides and apartheid in other countries and know the high price of letting racism run rampant. We should have zero tolerance for it.
The litigation brought by some of those mentioned in Boltâ€™s column is a menace to that mission. Those involved in bringing the case, including former judge Ron Merkel QC, ought be ashamed of themselves. We can only hope that justice is done.
If Andrew Bolt, a popular columnist with a huge following across the nation, published in the nation’s most profitable and successful newspaper, can be dragged through this absurd process, then anyone can be. And will be.
Free speech has never had more outlets. And never had more threats to face either.